The trouble with 'tribal'

The head of the 'Jewish Peace Corps' throws down a challenge.

African refugee food 88 224 (photo credit: Mya Guarnieri)
African refugee food 88 224
(photo credit: Mya Guarnieri)
So how's this for guts: Invited to give the commencement address before a class of graduating rabbis, cantors, educators and other future Jewish leaders, you tell them, "You have a choice: You can luxuriate in the parochial exercise of ministering to a comfortable, affluent ethnic group and addressing its so-called 'challenges,' or you can help feed, clothe and save the lives of people who are really suffering. Your call." Okay, that's not exactly what Ruth Messinger said in her address to graduates of the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Conservative movement's flagship. But it's awfully close. (Read or listen to Messinger's address at Last month the president of the American Jewish World Service, the "Jewish Peace Corps" that does humanitarian work throughout the Third World, threw a log onto a burning debate about Jewish priorities. Lumped under the general category of "peoplehood," the stakes are these: Should Jewish philanthropy and service focus narrowly on the needs of the Jewish people or be devoted to tikun olam - the pursuit of universal social justice? The unmistakable thrust of Messinger's commencement address was that the identity struggles and financial challenges within the Jewish community pale next to the poverty and degradation felt in places like the Congo and Zimbabwe. Messinger was proposing nothing less than "what it means to be Jewish in the 21st century." As I understand her speech, that means an almost exclusive obligation to "work for greater equity, for social justice and for global citizenship." As opposed to what, you're wondering? Consider the mission statement of United Jewish Communities, the network of federations: "improving the quality of Jewish life worldwide, nurturing Jewish learning, caring for those in need, rescuing Jews in danger and ensuring the continuity of our people." IN THE UJC FRAMING, four of its five core mission points are directed at Jewish needs, and only one, "caring for those in need," has a universal thrust; support for Israel is a given. In Messinger's talk, Jewish tradition now compels us to be almost wholly outer-directed, and Israel goes unmentioned. As for the classic communal concerns of the last century - anti-anti-Semitism, pro-Israel activity and Holocaust remembrance - they will not be the binding agents of Jewish peoplehood in this one, she said. "In the future we must also be held together by our commitment to our common values - by our recognition of our obligation not just to teach Torah but to live it, by our commitment to pursue justice," she said. Messinger describes this as a Jewish religious imperative, although she builds that case less on a close reading of text than on some familiar Jewish ethical tropes: Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor. All humankind is created in the image of God. "We are children of the Exodus." Messinger is also blunt, maybe uncomfortably so, about the relative affluence of the North American Jewish community. Yes, Jews have suffered in the financial meltdown, she says. But there is suffering, and there is suffering: "The worst consequences of the economic crisis are not felt in the boardrooms or seen in our bank accounts," she said. "They are seen in the eyes of the children dying of hunger in Democratic Republic of Congo, and the children neglected in our own communities, the children here or there unable to get health care because a parent has lost a job or no transport is available or a hospital is without staff or medicine." Even here, in acknowledging struggles in "our own communities," Messinger isn't talking about kids having to drop out of day school, or missing out on Birthright because funding was reduced. Sure, she believes in Jewish continuity, but feels the pursuit of global justice is a more compelling answer to the question "Why be Jewish?" than what she calls "tribal identity." I don't know how this message was received by her audience of Jewish professionals-to-be, and I am surprised it hasn't gotten more play in the Jewish press or blogosphere. But even I, someone who thinks the case for Jewish "peoplehood" is often overstated and overly nostalgic, felt Messinger had taken the universal argument too far. She's right in this regard: Engagement with the wider world and a commitment to social justice is a Jewish (and human) moral imperative, as well as good PR for the Jewish people and a way to engage those for whom particularist Jewish causes seem either narrow or irrelevant. And Messinger is right to be worried that in an era of economic triage, Jewish leaders will retreat from being a "light unto the nations." And yet our impulse to engage the wider world develops within the bosom of family. In that sense, "tribal identity" is not an obstacle to the pursuit of global justice, but a prerequisite. JTS and other institutions fail if they do not teach Judaism as a spur to action. But they also fail if they don't nurture the Jewish language, behaviors and mutual responsibility - all elements of peoplehood - in which a commitment to social justice can take root. The writer is editor in chief of the New Jersey Jewish News.